Christians remember the death of Jesus Christ by sharing the bread and wine of the communion table. Ernest H J Steed explores what does and doesn’t happen in this special service.
For a few weeks last year, world attention was focused on Rome, with the death of one pope and the election and inauguration of another.
The media, accustomed to giving detail to significant world events, presented a close look at the religious practices and traditional rituals, specifically covering the many special masses held in Rome at St Peter’s. Even the President of the United States and his brother likewise paid homage to the past and newly elected pope, among many current kings and presidents, recognising the increasing authority and present-day influence of the Papacy.
And many non-Roman Catholic Christians joined in the prayerful words of thankfulness for the life of a respected man, John Paul II.
As we know, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI. He was formerly a cardinal in Rome, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Inquisition.
As new pope, he pointedly declared his leadership role at his first mass in the Sistine Chapel with the cardinals would be toward unity, focusing on ecumenism.
So amid the wave of goodwill that last year’s events generated toward the role of the pope, we also need to remember that there are important reasons why the church is divided. In many parts of the world, there remains a strong divide over many of the Catholic Church’s teachings.
Protestantism, which emerged with the Reformation from the 15th to 17th centuries, is forgetting its roots. At the Reformation’s core was Martin Luther’s desire to see the Bible as the only source of Christian theology and practice.
With the Bible recognised by the Reformers as the only authority, not church tradition, it is providential that today the Bible has become available in most languages worldwide. But, today many modern-day Protestants and Christian reformers equate the mass, also known as the Eucharist, with Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, and see little difference.
Pope Benedict emphasised this difference in his homily to the cardinals, saying that Roman Catholicism is centred on one primary teaching—the supremacy of the mass.
Communion—a remembrance service, originally looking back to the Passover and forward to Jesus’ sacrificial death— was to be a spiritual renewal with the symbolic emblems of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine, representing Jesus’ death as the Lamb of God with the assurance of victory.
But this ceremony has been literalised by Roman Catholicism, which teaches that the priest transforms these emblems into the actual body and blood of Jesus, creating a sacrifice equal to that of the cross.
In the pope’s inaugural mass homily, he called the mass a sacrifice and the emblems a gift presented in sacrifice to God. He then prayed, “Let it become for us the body and blood of Christ.” Holding aloft the chalice, he said it is “containing the precious blood” of this “Holy and Perfect Sacrifice.” He was following the teachings of the Catholic catechism, which tells of the transforming power of the words of the priest conducting the mass and claims the emblems become the actual body and blood of Jesus.
The Catechism Made Easy (1923), by Cardinal Gibson, reads: “Question: Is the Holy Mass a different sacrifice from that of the Cross?” “Answer: No. The Holy Mass is one and the same sacrifice with that of the Cross” (page 114).
It continues, “This wonderful miracle, by which the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of our Divine Lord, is usually called Transubstantiation, which means the change from one substance into another” (page 96).
This is not what the Bible teaches (see Bible Discovery ).
Speaking of Jesus, the apostle Paul clearly explains: “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God … for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12, 14; KJV).
The Roman Catholic mass is a continuing sacrifice providing salvation through Jesus’ “real” flesh and blood. Believers are told that without attending mass their salvation is in jeopardy.
The above text from Hebrews pictures Christ now, not as a sacrifice, but as High Priest offering His accomplished sacrifice for us as we pray to our heavenly Father through Jesus. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31).
Jesus was critical of the religious leaders of His day, saying, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8).
We need to be careful of falling into the same trap in our faith and practice.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Scriptures that testify of Him must always be our paramount source of truth—even where this conflicts with human traditions.